Bodies of Inscription

A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community

Bodies of Inscription

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 22 b&w photographs Published: January 2000

Author: Margo DeMello

American Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies

Since the 1980s, tattooing has emerged anew in the United States as a widely appealing cultural, artistic, and social form. In Bodies of Inscription Margo DeMello explains how elite tattooists, magazine editors, and leaders of tattoo organizations have downplayed the working-class roots of tattooing in order to make it more palatable for middle-class consumption. She shows how a completely new set of meanings derived primarily from non-Western cultures has been created to give tattoos an exotic, primitive flavor.
Community publications, tattoo conventions, articles in popular magazines, and DeMello’s numerous interviews illustrate the interplay between class, culture, and history that orchestrated a shift from traditional Americana and biker tattoos to new forms using Celtic, tribal, and Japanese images. DeMello’s extensive interviews reveal the divergent yet overlapping communities formed by this class-based, American-style repackaging of the tattoo. After describing how the tattoo has moved from a mark of patriotism or rebellion to a symbol of exploration and status, the author returns to the predominantly middle-class movement that celebrates its skin art as spiritual, poetic, and self-empowering. Recognizing that the term “community” cannot capture the variations and class conflict that continue to thrive within the larger tattoo culture, DeMello finds in the discourse of tattooed people and their artists a new and particular sense of community and explores the unexpected relationship between this discourse and that of other social movements.
This ethnography of tattooing in America makes a substantive contribution to the history of tattooing in addition to relating how communities form around particular traditions and how the traditions themselves change with the introduction of new participants. Bodies of Inscription will have broad appeal and will be enjoyed by readers interested in cultural studies, American studies, sociology, popular culture, and body art.


“[A] penetrating and wonderfully original piece of research, interweaving references to Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu . . . with field work in a well-organized and cleanly written book.” — Margot Mifflin , Village Voice

“[A] welcome and original slant on the evolution of the tattoo . . . .” — Beverley Chaplain, Sexuality

“[DeMello] describes how the new tattoo movement has tried to put a ‘middle class face on the art form.’ Clearly, though, a sense of danger still accounts for much of the tattoo’s allure.” — Leo Carey, The New Yorker

“[T]his book has much to recommend it for general collections. . . . DeMello’s major interest is in describing the new community of tattooed people, both men and women, for whom new meanings are being forged from the meeting of skin and ink.” — Patricia Monaghan, Booklist

“A respectful look at an aspect of pop culture not normally treated in such unsensational terms.” — Kirkus Reviews

“An interesting, authentic account of tattoo communities.” — Library Journal

“DeMello uncovers some fascinating data about exactly how and why tatoos—once associated exclusively with older servicemen and social outlaws—have become acceptable for some of today’s brightest young strivers.” — Carol Cooper , Honey Magazine

“This engaging study of the contemporary ‘tattoo community’ in the United States marks the extraordinary cultural distance the tattoo has traveled in the last few years. . . . [A] knowledgeable account of the construction and self-representation of the tattoo community and indeed a lively contribution to the reproduction of that community.” — Jane Caplan , The Historian

“Undoubtedly, one of the merits of the book is the remarkable accomplishment of presenting a most complete ethnography of the tattoo scenes in the United States and its actors.” — Maria Abeyami Ortega Dominguez , Visual Anthropology Review

"Bodies of Inscription is a good read for those who are interested in learning the history of the art and understanding some of the reasons behind the resurgence of tattooing over the last twenty years." — Shannon Berry , Gateway Heritage

"[A] very good ethnography of the contemporary North American tattoo community. . . . DeMello captures well the diffuse nature of this community, and its inner contradiction." — Cyril Siorat, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“A fascinating book bursting with penetrating description. DeMello makes a very useful contribution to the literature on these increasingly salient voluntary communities of passion, interest, and identity.” — Gayle Rubin

“The histories of tattoo traditions presented in this book are fascinating and rich. DeMello has many insights into tattoos’ complexity of meaning, brought out in precise ethnographic and historical fashion.” — Kathleen Stewart, author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America


Availability: In stock
Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Margo DeMello is a nonprofit fundraiser. She has taught at San Francisco State University, Sacramento City College, and the University of California, Davis.

Table of Contents Back to Top


1. Finding Community
Shops, Conventions, Magazines, and Cyberspace

2. Cultural Roots
The History of Tattooing in the West

3. Appropriation and Transformation
The Origins of the Renaissance

4. Discourse and Differentiation
Media Representation and Tattoo Organizations

5. The Creation of Meaning I
The New Text

6. The Creation of Meaning II
The Tattoo Narratives

Conclusion: The Future of a Movement



Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2467-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2432-4
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